Top Ten Christmas Gifts for 2012 – Personal Favourites
Every year we put together a list of the products we have tried and loved over the year and include them in our Christmas List. 2012 has been a memorable year for visits, tastings and tests.
These are our favourites:
Chocolate bouquet – can’t think of anything more tempting than this astonishingly beautiful chocolate bouquet – we’re sending it as a family gift to five families who live far and wide who will be meeting up for Christmas in a country house in the Midlands. A smaller bouquet and individual flowers are also available. Utterly charming, seems a shame to eat them.
Last year we were impressed by and ordered several items from the Thompson & Morgan catalogue of bouquets and other floral gifts. This year they have added to the items on offer. All details on their website.
Booja Booja chocolate truffles are oh so yum! Organic and made by hand, we have to restrict ourselves to one each a day until the box is empty. Delicious flavours include raspberry – our absolute favourite is the Champagne Truffle … so irresistible they should be banned! Ingredients for chocolate aficionados: Dark chocolate (cocoa solids 55%, cane sugar, emulsifier, soya lecithin, vanilla, coconut oil, champagne 8%, Agave, Cocoa powder.
Cooking in someone else’s kitchen is always interesting and on our return from a two month stay in France we immediately bought a hand blender – there are lots on the market but we plumped for the Sainsbury 200K version. At the surprising price of £4.13 it does the job quite well and is good enough for soups, blending cooked fruit and vegetables. We love the flexibility of blending direct in the saucepan. Much less washing up. For slicing, chopping and making small quantities of sauce our Magimix is indispensable – it has considerably more power with well designed cutting discs.
We love our Russell Hobbs Brita Filter Kettle. Living in a hard water and limescale area, dark rings on cups and a film on coffee and tea is really noticeable and slightly unpleasant. All that disappears using this filter kettle and your tea and coffee tastes so much better too. Of course you have the ongoing expense of the filters, but we prefer that to the unpleasant effects of scale. We use the filtered water for cooking as well.
Another useful device in the French kitchen was a simple Spoon Rest. I could only search out one, in John Lewis, the Playnation Ceramic Rest costs £8. It’s big enough to hold more than one wooden spoon, it gives me less cleaning to do of food marks on the worktop. Just throw it in the dishwasher, well best not to throw … Definitely the most useful piece of kitchen kit I have come across in years.
Digital scales As I am on a calorie restricted food programme (called a diet by everyone else!) an accurate, easy to clean, set of scales is essential. Again John Lewis came up trumps and I was pleased the nicest one I found, Salter 1036 Electronic Disc Kitchen Scale, 5kg, Black only cost £12.80. It has a lot of positive reviews.
I was lucky enough to interview Stanley Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, a month or so ago to talk about her, painting, work methods and style. The feature will appear in the New Year.
Christiane was kind enough to sign a copy of the Taschen Book: The Stanley Kubrick Archives for us to offer to In Balance readers. This giveaway will appear on this website early in 2013.
The book is the first to explore Kubrick’s archives and the most comprehensive study of the filmmaker to date. It would be a must for any film buff. Reviews on the Taschen website are enlightening.
Another book we came across is Uniquely British, A Year in the Life of The Household Cavalry, written by serving officers and soldiers. The book covers events that took place during 2011 and 2012 and gives a unique insight into the background activities of a 350 year old organisation. Published to fund the launch of the Household Cavalry Foundation, a new charity to support serving soldiers, operational casualties, veterans or even their horses. Uniquely British is available direct from the publishers Tricorn Books, who presumably pay their British taxes which is more than be said about that huge organisation that sends most of its UK profits home to the US whose name begins with a capital A and from whom we assume you wouldn’t order this book. Sorry, our prejudices are showing.
OTHER Favourites to Give you Inspiration
For those who find listening to book a lifeline when driving long distance, or doing any repetitive activity like gym work, talking books might be an appropriate gift. Our recent feature gives details
George Foreman Grill – Absolutely besotted with this easy to make sandwich grill that cooks steaks to a T! Our feature gives details
Rose Oil is our absolute favourite product for facial care. From Living Nature we would never be without it!
Belleville Rendezvous – If you haven’t seen this do have a look at our feature – it’s a cartoon which is so funny and whacky yet charming and engaging.
Insect House – This is a fascinating item to attracts insects that will stay in your garden to help pollinate your fruit and vegetables. Young children love it. Our recent feature gives details.
And FINALLY, we’ve left the best until last! We spent an overnight spa stay at Whittlebury Hall. We so enjoyed this. A world class hydrotherapy centre, offering a vast range of treatments, beautiful decor, spacious accommodation, wonderful food … seriously large swimming pool, golf course, beautiful grounds to explore … You might just like to book up one of the special deals on offer up to Christmas! I took my husband who loved it … now that’s a recommendation!
Phew, I hope you find something of interest to choose as a thoughtful gift.
Good luck and the compliments of the season!
Val Reynolds Brown, Editor
Really Inspirational Father’s Day Gifts
Most people seem to agree that finding the perfect gift for their dad is one of the least easy tasks of the year. Here are some ideas from our thoughtful team to inspire you:
Wine holiday in Oporto Built into the hillside of the spectacular Duoro Valley, The Yeatman hotel in Oporto is inspired by the celebrated wines of the region. Guests can seriously indulge themselves during the weekly wine evenings, tasting soirees and cookery courses. The extensive wine cellars hold 25,000 bottles alone and the in-house Michelin starred chef, Ricardo Costsa, is always on-hand to educate guests about food pairing. Even The Yeatman’s vinotherapy spa will be difficult for Dads to resist, as it offers a Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Bath or body scrub. Prices from €150 per night.
Failing that why not a bottle of Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2005, available from £13.79 at most retail outlets nationwide. Here is a link to information on the website
Or he might have loads of the stuff in the cupboard but may not have some luscious glasses to savour it – we would choose the beautiful Riedel Port Glasses available at John Lewis and Amazon.
How about a short holiday break for someone mad on fishing? Forget Salmon Fishing in the Yemen although a couple of tickets might go down a treat! – how about Fly fishing in the Maldives All hard-working fathers deserve peace and quiet once in a while, and you would be hard pressed to find a more relaxing and tranquil outdoor pursuit than fly-fishing. On a secluded private island in North Maldives, Island Hideaway resort boasts deepwater channels and expansive shallow flats, ideal for whiling away the hours until that longed-for catch comes along. Prices from £1350 per week during low season, and £2300 during high season. OK, so that might be a bit over the top! How about The Ultimate Guide Book to Fishing? This Google page might give ideas.
Right, nothing so far appeals? What about a luxury wet shave? Harking back to simpler times when every man had a trusty barber to see to his beard and whiskers, in London the Spa at Dolphin Square offers chaps the rare chance to pamper themselves with a range of traditional Moroccan wet shaves. Choose from the age-old Savon Noir shave, which cleanses by combining crushed olives, olive oil and Eucalyptus (£35), or go all out with a Moroccan Cleansing Ritual, incorporating a Hammam and Shea Butter Massage, followed by the relaxing shave (£104). This would appeal to many men I know so it could be a winner!
On a more basic level though why not a gift voucher from B&Q? Lots of us like browsing in DIY stores, especially new and improved gadgets!
Or why not some Ogilvy’s honey – their Balkan Linden Honey is rather special. Gathered from colonies in the Danube region of Serbia. This honey was one of four varieties of Ogilvy’s Honey to win gold stars in the 2011 Great Taste Awards organised by The Guild of Fine Food. It is rather special – you can find more information on the Ogilvy’s website.
If you live in or near London then of course you could take him for a meal – Ping Pong in Soho is excellent, The Sanderson in Berners St has a wonderful dining area as has the Lanesborough Hotel opposite Hyde Park Corner. What about some tickets to a game at The Arsenal? A visit to the House of Commons to see Parliament in action and a meal in one of the boats on the river. Or a boat trip on the Thames? Of course you could just go for a walk in Hyde Park and have something to eat in one of the many cafes in the park.
Or how about an App for his iPhone or iPad – he doesn’t have one? There’s two more ideas!
Hope you might find one of these inspiring! Good luck – you have just three days left!
Val Reynolds Brown, Editor
Budapest In Balance – A trip to a beautiful city
Five years ago I decided to implement a plan that had been brewing in my mind for a long time – to take a group of In Balance readers on a city break and to experience Hungarian thermal spas.
We booked into Hotel Margitsziget on St Margaret’s Island which had its own thermal spa and a range of treatments – many only available with medical approval, although we had the choice of a range of massages and beauty treatments.
Only having three days to visit, we needed to get moving – and fast! For the group briefing we consulted our copies of the excellent Budapest City Guide, generously provided by Bradt travel guides. In constant use every day, the small size made it an ideal travelling companion in pocket or handbag. Update: It is now in its third edition. The maps fold out – great improvement with points of interest numbered and cross referenced. Physically it has doubled in size. Much improved and very, very informative.
One of the first things we learned is that the city is a misnomer. The reality is two cities – Buda and Pest, one each side of the river. With so much to see it was a smart move to arrange a coach tour with a guide. Driving around Buda, we were really very impressed: the historic city has been well restored and, at night, the main buildings are lit giving the city a fairytale backdrop. Great views and a real treat for the photographers.
Across the Danube, Pest was another story altogether. Flat and built up, many of its buildings have a stucco finish which was broken almost everywhere giving the city a tired and run down feel. Work on an extension to the Metro was causing traffic havoc.
Overall, the two cities had a melancholy beauty. Everywhere we saw cruelly pruned trees and piles of rubbish in the streets, awaiting collection.
The people were great though! In our hotel they were really helpful and friendly, although a little shy and slow to approach us at first. But we’d made a great choice for a relaxing base – for example, Lucia, one of the group, quickly forgot which day it was she was so chilled out! The thermal baths were excellent, clean and relaxing.
Interestingly Budapest had become a medical tourism centre, visited by many from the UK for the good value for money dental treatment. (You might like to read our later feature concerning dental treatment abroad). Around the hotel, we got chatting to several visitors from the UK with positive stories to tell about their experiences. Cosmetic surgery and laser eye treatment were popular.
Many of the old state run services, like health, still worked extremely well. Transport was very reliable and easy, with frequent trams, double coach buses, taxis, metro, bikes and river boats, a single ticket system linked all public transport. We found the ticketing regulations complex and struggled at times to travel legally!
Apart from our own hotel, we spent some time in Hotel Gellert – a general cry for coffee and cakes break!
The hotel’s own thermal spa is available to the public with its main bathing hall renovated and opulent. However the women’s changing area was awful – run down and smelly, with unlockable cubicles for your belongings. Bathing in the women’s pool was naked – an experience not to be missed. Or repeated depending on your view! The hot water gushes straight out of the rock and was absolutely wonderful to stand under it and have a good, natural massage on the shoulders, and other parts if you wished of course!
On aspect of nude bathing is that it is a natural leveller and also an educational experience. Never knew there were so many different shapes of parts of the body. Luckily the mixed pool insisted on swimwear. Thank goodness.
But our visit wasn’t all about healthy living! We ate in traditional restaurants and experienced the dated atmosphere, where music was provided generally by violinists and guitar players. Much of the food we found to be overcooked, but the exceptions were the freshly cooked dishes like trout with almonds and the baked salmon we found in a fish restaurant. We also enjoyed Hungarian dishes including hortobagh palatsinta – chicken minced with cream and paprika.
As luck would have it we visited during the Spring Festival, a time of music, dance and theatre. One of our stops was at an outdoor craft market with food stalls – a chance to try some more local snacks! And I was rather taken by a flute seller who played his heart out for us.
Organisational problems were few except when a couple somehow got separated from the main group, twice. So I quickly learnt how it important it was to always check mobile phones will work in the country you are visiting!
Well that was six years ago. It would be interesting to revisit and compare experiences. We would go later in the year, probably early April when it would be a good deal warmer, brighter and more conducive to joining in the city’s famous cafe society habit of people watching.
We stayed at the Danubuis Hotel Margitsziget on St Margaret’s Island www.danubiushotels.com
An informative website is www.gotohungary.co.uk
Val Reynolds Brown, Editor
Runnymede Spa and Hotel
It was easy to relax and chill out in the darkened room, with soothing music, gentle aromas and competent hands massaging my weary body. It was quite companionable as my colleague was on a treatment couch just a few feet away. We didn’t speak to each other, but it felt good.
I was at the spa in the Runnymede Hotel, Egham and pleasantly surprised at the peace and quiet. Having battled my way through the M25 traffic, actually it wasn’t that bad, with the aid of my trusty SatNav, I welcomed the chance of the Crystals and Champagne spa break after a particularly trying week at work.
A group of six of us were booked into the Aquitaine suite*, with a member of staff assigned to look after us. A completely private area separated from the main spa and gym areas it is only accessible by pass codes. Absolutely ideal for private parties of up to about eight.
With a room for relaxing, tv, massage chair, settees, easy chairs there is an adjoining treatment room for two. A changing area with lockers, two large shower rooms and smaller treatment rooms.
The facilities of the spa upstairs made it possible for us to go off to swim, or gym, so it was seldom that all of us were in the room at the same time. It is possible to have all your meals served in the suite which makes it all the more attractive as a retreat. In fact it would be ideal for a group wanting to spend the time meditating, doing yoga, and simply being quiet as there was absolutely no extraneous sound. However if you chose a break with the overnight stay your room would be in the hotel itself.
The spa section is well laid out, the pool was big and spacious, jacuzzi and eucalyptus steam room, well designed gym and exercise studio. The treatment rooms were high standard. There were very pleasant seated areas for relaxation and a very attractive dining room. The food was excellent, imaginative, well displayed and light.
The Crystal treatment made up of neck, back and shoulders massage using hot stones was done well. We chose the oils that appealed to our sense of smell the most. I chose the one that was intended to invigorate – an excellent choice! The facial was rounded off by the use of cool crystals to give contrast and a stimulus to the lymph system. The final head massage was excellent. Espa products were used throughout. It was good to have a coordinated massage that lasted well over an hour.
There is no doubt Runnymede is a luxury hotel from the moment you step through the revolving door, the decor and facilities are of a very high standard. It’s a family hotel with a few rules to please those of us wanting to be child free. For instance at 12 noon children have to leave the spa. They are then allowed to return between 3 and 5 pm.
The hotel is on the River Thames with spacious terraces for warm weather relaxing and lawns down to the river. A heated outdoor pool is open between April and September.
With easy access from the M25 and Heathrow, it is ideal for the traveller who wants a break between flights, or before/after that long haul flight, wanting to do a little historic sightseeing and have a gorgeous spa experience. There is an excellent Treatment Finder on their website to suit individual needs.
Depending on the package you choose prices are from £160 per night based on two people sharing a room, inclusive of VAT and service.
There are plenty of good value offers to choose from.
For further information or to make a booking call the spa on 01784 220600 or visit www.therunnymede.co.uk
*The suite is named after Eleanor Aquitaine mother of King John, who signed the Magna Carta in the famous fields opposite the hotel
This feature also appears on the SpaWellBeing website
A Fish Spa – The Most Unusual Treatment in Town!
I regularly meet up with five lifestyle journalists and a different spa experience really appealed. We had a choice of a hand or foot treatment at the second Aqua Sheko fish spa to open in London, in Frith Street, just off Shaftesbury Avenue.
When I mentioned my fish spa pedicure to my friends and colleagues I had a mixed response:
- Eek! I couldn’t possibly do it!
- Nothing would induce me to do that!
So what was it like? We all found it rather fun! After the initial trepidation of putting my feet in the tank of warm water when the fish flocked to my toes, I hardly felt the little Garra Rufa fish nibbling away and spent the 25 minute treatment watching them work hard, while I sipped herbal tea. The treatment ended with a wonderful foot massage that gave me a spring in my step!
Garra Rufa fish, a species of carp, inhabit Turkish hot springs where they naturally breed and feed. For years people with psoriasis and other skin disorders have visited the springs for the fish to painlessly nibble away the dead skin. By peeling away ordinary callouses and the thick lesions of psoriasis, the fish leave feet feeling softer and prettier.
This fish spa phenomenon has been taken up enthusiastically in the Far East where fish foot therapy is available in shopping malls and department stores.
There is of course the concern about transfer of skin infections. If your feet have any broken skin like Athlete’s Foot, or bruises, it is recommended you wait until they heal before having the treatment. At Aqua Sheko they have a UV water filter installed to destroy unwanted organisms.
Washing your feet just before the treatment is necessary which also ensures the removal of any skincare chemicals that might harm, or even kill, the fish.
At Aqua Sheko it’s possible to have a whole body treatment! This is something yet to be experienced … maybe a New Year treat.
All details on the Aqua Sheko website
Val Reynolds Brown, Editor
Johannesburg – Saxon Boutique Hotel & Spa
Bowling along in an airconditioned minivan on a sunny afternoon following 10 hours on a plane was a relief. The clouds seemed bigger and sky bluer than I had seen for a long time. Unfamiliar flowers on the roadside and birds in the trees were intriguing and exciting.
Given the opportunity to experience treatments on offer in some spa hotels in South Africa we were looking forward to a period of relaxed living in five star surroundings. We were not disappointed.
Starting in Johannesburg, with its reputation for violence and unrest seemed a little unwise, but we didn’t see anything untoward, although we found the number to street traders converging on the car at traffic lights somewhat unnerving. Anyway we had to start somewhere and why not experience what is considered the best of the best, the Saxon Hotel in the Sandhurst section of the Santon area.
We faced a high security entry procedure with a high perimeter wall, a 24 hour guard and a sliding door so heavy it rumbled along its tracking into the wall itself. I felt a bomb would have trouble making an impression on it.
The gate opened onto a six acre park with a meadering drive, past groups of grey ibis busily searching for insects in the grass – quite a broadleaved type of rye grass, different from our fine fescue rich mixes, arriving at a magnificent entrance. It was easy to see how the management could promise peace and security for their highly placed guests.
In the huge entrance hall with its stunning central light fitting to match were dozens of examples of African artefacts – wooden carvings, masks, even doors, which featured on walls, tables, and floors in all directions, and through to my bedroom, well suite actually, with its beautiful masks and carvings to gaze at.
I had a balcony with a table and chairs overlooking the park and trees, a pillared bed, beautiful bathroom with a fantastic bath – oh what a wonderful soak to be had after our eleven hour journey! I would have liked to stay in the suite for a couple of days just to enjoy the luxury of it all and try out some of other facilities. It had a table I could work on big enough for a meeting of six people, with internet access, a huge television, round sound hifi system, lots of sofas and, luxury of luxury, a master pad at the door and by the bed to switch all lights and devices off in one fell swoop, or choose any combination you want. You can see images on the website.
Saxon hotel is ideal for travellers of all kinds wanting the opportunity to relax and restore their energy. There is plenty to choose from including swimming pools and lounging areas in the most beautiful surroundings, an excellent spa centre, as well as a fitness centre.
I chose the unique sound therapy in the hotel spa, where tibetan bowls and gongs were all around the room. Whilst I lay on a water bed, bowls were placed on my chakra points, then gently tapped, the sound resonating through my body. I fell into a dream state going to a far away place while other bowls and gongs were softly sounded continuously. I really resented coming back into the here and now at the end of the session!
I’m unsure whether this could be considered an authentic African therapy, but then remembering the recent rapid development of spa centres of all kinds in South Africa it’s only to be expected that many treatments on offer are strongly influenced by others from around world. The 60 minute treatment was R690 (approx £49). You will find more details on the website that includes the spa brochure.
Saxon was originally a private home and it was there Mandela stayed when writing his book A Long Walk To Freedom. The site was later transformed into the luxury conference venue and hotel it is today.
Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton have been notable visitors. I can see why Saxon says captains of industry, heads of state and even royalty can be offered a quality of service beyond reproach and with international chefs providing fantastic tasting food, beautifully crafted, there is everything here to enjoy and relax into.
Lunch was beautifully presented and cooked, if rather long in delivery. The dessert was especially good, a soft layered meringue with a cheesecake-like base. When faced with a beautifully laid out table with cutlery and glass to die for, my anticipation of an excellent meal is heightened. We were not disappointed, it was stunning.
It is possible to experience the hotel’s spa as a day visitor. If you happen to be in Jo’burg with a day or so to spare do consider a visit – whatever you decide it will be a memorable occasion.
We flew from London Heathrow to Johannesburg with South African Airways www.flysaa.com 0870 747 1111 Flights LHR to JNB approximately £700 return, including taxes
South African Tourism, www.southafrica.net Information/Brochure Line: 0870 1550044
Saxon Boutique Hotel and Spa 36 Saxon Road Sandhurst Johannesburg www.thesaxon.com Tel: 00 27 11 292 6000 Voted the World’s Leading Boutique Hotel for the last six consecutive years
The Saxon is an all-suite hotel – we each had an Egoli suite R 5,400 per room per night (approx £385) Presidential Suite R11,300 per room per night (approx £810) Platinum Suite R21,000 per room per night (approx £1,500) Rates include breakfast and use of the hydro facilities at the spa.
Editorial and Photography Val Reynolds Brown August 2008